Treasure houses as tools of power

Civilising Rituals
August 30, 1996

The fact that museums often remind their visitors of churches or other sites of sacred or secular power has long been recognised, but in Carol Duncan's book we have a clear exposition of the different ways in which museums function as ritual structures, and how their architectural settings, the disposition of their collections, and the visitor's movements and reactions all play their role in the ritual programme.

The study shows how, ever since the development of the Louvre as a public institution, museums in France, Britain and the United States have been used to communicate and affirm both social values and social identities. The emergence of the public art museum was closely related to the larger history of the emerging nation state in the 19th century.

The creation of the Louvre Museum entailed the transformation of a palace into a new kind of public space which both demonstrated the state's commitment to democracy and provided a scenario in which a newly defined "public" could gather and be seen.

In Britain, with its different history, the concept of a national institution evolved more slowly, as did the belief that art institutions could effect moral and social change.

In the United States after the civil war, as in republican France, the public art museum was to be both a site of learning and self-improvement, a place of moral and spiritual pleasure, and a palace of treasures open to all. But here, unlike in France, museums were funded by business and banking elites, conferring social distinction on those who created and controlled them, effectively reinforcing class boundaries.

As Duncan vividly demonstrates through her fascinating tales of the great benefactors, the history of museum development in the US reflects these contradictory tensions. The more the great museums achieved credibility as public spaces the more attractive they became as sites for personal and family memorials. Yet individual collections, displayed separately inside the public museum, threaten the logic of the public ritual and introduce a conflicting pattern in which the visitor, as in institutions specifically developed as memorials, is an outsider gazing in on the perfectly ranked worlds of the rich and powerful.

In the tide of cultural studies racing to analyse the role of the museum, Carol Duncan's Civilising Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums stands out as a most readable, illuminating and informative book.

Deborah Swallow is curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Civilising Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums

Author - Carol Duncan
ISBN - 0 415 07011 2 and 07012 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £12.99
Pages - 178

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